I’m thinking of a photograph of a cactus blooming in the desert.
That is always the way I will think of you and your work. It has nothing to do with any kind of cliché of prickliness, because I have never seen a sharp point to you. Maybe you have sharp points like most of us do, but that is certainly not a feature of your spirit or your work. The cactus is full of life. It is green, so green. It curves in a perfect vessel which soothes and delights the lost, the thirsty, the weary. Maybe this sounds over-the-top or sycophantic (God I hope not) but one thing I love about you and your work is that it doesn’t shy away from the joy of expressing joy and a kind of love that meets the stranger on the path with a big smile and open arms. Sometimes people doubt it when a person shows up that way—maybe people have been hurt and are suspicious and maybe cynical. But I mean it, I see you and your work this way—like a vessel full of life and light.
I am not being eloquent. I just had to spell-check the word eloquent. I grew up without books, in a home where books were viewed with suspicion, but even more than suspicion, total neglect. So were children. I was a child in a house with no books and adults who were hurting and angry and left plumes of violent hurt and anger all over the house, in the rooms, and who roped me in with it and wouldn’t let go.
I grew up scared and then angry and then full of a fight that was both a curse and a gift. I spent a long time trying to fix myself. This is a love letter to you, not me, though! Except—you’d want it to be to me, too. That’s what I got from you and your work.
I don’t even remember exactly when I found you or the first poem or how. I’m pretty sure it was when my son, Elliot came out as trans the second time. The first time he told me, I don’t remember it, but he says he was eight and I guess I didn’t hear him or understand. I wanted to be a good mother. I was so overjoyed with my children and I felt such deep love for them and I was happy to create a home for them that would be a safe place and a haven. I also knew I couldn’t be perfect, because that would put too much pressure on my kids and I’d fall right back into the narcissistic traps of it being all about me. Am I being narcissistic now? How’d I get from Elliot to MY children to ME? This is all to say that I think the self exists on a spectrum between toxic narcissism and healthy self-love and grace all in between and around like a desert. Not a wasteland. The desert is teeming with life and beauty. I feel this wondering about the self and its capacity for violence and harm in your work, too. But also that grace for others and the self.
So I missed something Elliot tried to tell me when he was eight. Then he told me again at fifteen and I was still a little wary. But he said LISTEN TO ME, MOM. and I did. I turned to face him and I listened and I said yes to everything in him. He was and is so beautiful. Now he is at the University of Iowa, and when I see him sometimes for lunch or when he texts me or calls, my heart jumps and I feel so happy. He is the most beautiful being.
One of the first books I got immediately after he spoke to me and I listened with an open heart was Troubling the Line. I wanted to be a good mom, so of course, I ordered a bazillion books on being trans the next day: nonfiction, self-help, clinical/academic, fiction, memoir, and poetry.
That’s where I found you. I’m certain of it now. I then signed us up for a poetry workshop at Naropa. I got Elliot in the LAST SPOT for Eileen Myles’ workshop. I took Thurston Moore’s workshop because he was my childhood idol and I wanted to confront him (with grace) for a certain patriarchy I grew up with in the punk scene and kind of felt annoyed at (“Kill Yr Idols”). (I ran away from home as a teenager and found a home in punk rock and poetry.) And I thought meeting you and talking to you outside of a class face to face would be a really meaningful way to connect with you. So Elliot and I met you at SNARFBURGER and I was both beaming at Elliot and doing the proud mother thing and also spilling my soul all over your space. I bought Gephyromania.
You exuded light, just like your poems did. You talked about grace and you spoke the language of my childhood religion in a way that liberated the language from its terror and transformed it into this authentic questioning—the kind of question mark that the wise sages say we should live in. You made space in your workshop (which Elliot and I got to sit in on one day) to dance in the question. Literally, dance, move, embody! I was so scared of my body. So scared of myself, still, after forty-something years, still a scared little girl who wanted to be a brave and loved little boy, and now I had a trans son and he was a blazing light and I was immersed in all this light and felt both overjoyed and fearful, too, in turns.
Look, I know this doesn’t sound academic and like the proper kind of intellectual level of critique and analysis—but I’ve never been able to pull that off. I once wrote a paper about post-structuralism that was just gibberish repeating “signifier and signified” over and over again in every other sentence. I got an A+ but what I really loved in that class was my professor, Lydia Gasman, who survived the Holocaust and would quote Kabbala before class. I loved her.
I love you. Not in a creepy, stalkerish way. The world is dangerous and you’ve got to have good boundaries and sometimes survivors of abuse have trouble with boundaries, which can be a curse but also a GIFT. Because sometimes you meet fellow survivors and they’ve been through so much bullshit they’re like, can we just be real with each other? Like, we’re all going to die, so can we just love each other and mostly extend grace, unless someone proves to be harmful—in which case you have a right to protect yourself. But I just felt like my soul recognized you, first in your poems and then in your self. So whether I ever see you again, face to face, I think of you as a friend in the space of the world. The big beautiful desert and you’re out there blooming.
I want to be real with everyone I encounter on this big blue planet with its vast deserts of air and light and rocks and blooms. I really do love you all the poets reading and want to meet you and be open to you. If I can break the fourth wall a second and speak directly to the audience reading this—TC is an EMT!!! TC literally meets people in their most broken, scared places and tends to them and always has, in workshops, on the page, in dance, in the wilderness with Outward Bound, with my son, with students, friends, and strangers. Let’s all do that, please, to the best of our ability with all our crankiness or fears or suspicion (born rightfully by our experiences). Let’s be brave and love each other and extend one another grace.
Here’s one of my favorite poems of TC:
What Space Faith Can OccupyBy TC Tolbert
I believe that witness is a magnitude of vulnerability.That when I say love what I mean is not a feelingnor promise of a feeling. I believe in attention.My love for you is a monolith of try.
The woman I love pays an inordinate amountof attention to large and small objects. She is notdescribed by anything. Because I could not mean anything else,she knows exactly what I mean.
Once upon a time a line saw itselfclear to its end. I have seen the shapeof happiness. (y=mx+b)I am holding it. It is your hand.
Heathen/Heather Derr-Smith is a punk rock Sufi genderqueer poet with four books of poetry. s(he) lives in Des Moines with (he)r family of beautiful human beings and dog and cat animal-people. Heather’s most recent book Thrust, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award and was published in 2017 at Persea Books. Derr-Smith is also the founder/director of the nonprofit Cuvaj se, supporting writers in conflict zones and post-conflict zones and communities affected by violence and trauma. So, you may find Heathen wandering around the United States, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Kurdistan walking beside survivors and resisting authoritarian and fascist bullshit.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.